On the Virtues of Beards.

Villainy or Liberty?

Today a bearded man is often the villain, a malevolent force in a Disney movie, a Machiavellian character in a TV show, the man quietly asked to step aside for a detailed search in an airport. Facial hair has become a relative oddity in most professions outside of education, and has almost become synonymous with a hedonistic student life, extreme religious ideologies, or fringe cultures in society. Yet this was not always the way…

The Mark of a Man.

The Ancient Egyptian elite wove gold into their beards, the Mesopotamians and Persians admired well-groomed facial hair, for the Indians it was a sign of wisdom, and for the Greeks it was a sign of virility and was almost sacrosanct. Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers cut their facial hair as their opponents frequently seized it to better kill them. And even though Aristotle adopted this new fashion, a bearded man was generally accepted as being a philosopher. The Romans really enjoyed shaving, having little or no hair on their body, except for a neat haircut. For them beards became either a symbol of achieving manhood, mourning, or squalor. The Romans may have seen the beard as barbaric, since they were the rulers of the ‘civilised’ world, and many of their enemies wore beards, and grew their hair long.

The Long-haired Kings.

The so-called ‘Barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire were often ruled by dynasties which embrace facial hair. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths, which dominated Italy and Spain respectively, enjoyed long hair and moustaches. The Frankish royal family, the Merovingians, were commonly refered to as ‘the long-haired kings’. They even had strict rules about how long a man could wear his hair and beard depending on his social status. Indeed if a rebellious lord was captured, he was not killed, but made to shave his face and scalp, and cast into a monastery. Often such rebels would reappear several years later at the head of a new army, but only once their hair had grown back. The Carolingians maintained this hairy fashion, but their successors, the Capetians, had abandoned facial hair by the 12th century, and, with only a few exceptions, beards and moustaches were no longer grown by the monarchs of France. The Holy Roman Emperors also abandoned beards in the 12th century, by they were revived briefly in the 16th, but again went out of fashion. The rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms often wore beards, almost as often as they didn’t. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had a proud tradition of hairiness, which became a symbol of defiance when the short-haired Normans conquered the country, as it did in Scotland and Ireland. Even during the English Civil War, the shaven were godly puritan Parliamentarians, know as the Roundheads for their short hair, though they soon began to grow their hair long in defiance of the rulings of the Church of England. Peter the Great of Russia even tried to force the men of his empire, who have had an ancient and flamboyant love affair with facial hair, to become clean-shaven as a mark of civilisation, though many maintained a beard or moustache in defiance.

Catholicism and the Beard.

Why, you might wonder, was there a hiatus of facial hair between the 12th and 16th centuries, possibly the most religious period of European history? It may have been due to the fact that the Church began to threaten their wearers of beards with excommunication. Anselm of Canterbury encouraged the preaching of clean-shaveness and short hair throughout England, even though the king was fond of long curly hair, and punished Canterbury after the death of Anselm by allowing the see to remain vacant for several years. When the bearded Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades, he found his kingdom clean-shaven due to the influence of the clergy, which had filled the void of authority due to his absence. This clerical disgust of the beard is made deeply ironic by the fact that Jesus and his apostles are more often than not portrayed as being long of hair and beard, and that many popes followed this tradition.

The Modern Beard.

The beard appears to be fashionable, but not in fashion, in this era. The Presidents of the USA often wore beards, though none have done so since 1913. The beard vanished after 1914 due to the popularity of the clean-cut military look, a style which dominated the media of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s and the rise of counter-culture. This disdain for militarism brought on by the Vietnam War encouraged rebellion and civil disobedience, one aspect of which was a revival of long hair and beards. This trend has been maintained by students, musician, actors, and such, but the beard has yet to make a popular return to the Western world, probably due to its association with explosive anti-Western extremism.

The wearing of facial hair has become correspondent to immorality, and the clean-shaven has become the paradigm of virtue. In the past, facial hair has been a symbol of impiety, wisdom, defiance, and liberty, and as such it is to be embraced.

One cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion – G.K. Chesterton.

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